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How Do I Improve My Medical Vocabulary?

By Nicole Etolen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals often seem like they’re speaking a different language, and it can be difficult for a layperson to decipher what they’re saying. Learning medical terminology can serve you in many ways. It can help reduce misunderstandings, give you an edge in the medical industry workplace, and make it a little easier to care for sick loved ones. Like any new language, studying and exposure are the keys to improving your medical vocabulary.

Although it may seem like doctors speak in tongues just to confuse patients, medical vocabulary serves a very important purpose: it keeps everyone from nurses to health insurance adjusters on the same page. Having a core system with a set of words or phrases that means the same thing to everyone can help reduce confusion. For example, the statement “the patient presented with blue lips” can mean many different things. Perhaps the patient ate a piece of blue candy recently, or was wearing blue lipstick. Noting that the patient presented with cyanotic lips, however, means just one thing—the patient’s blue lips were a result of a lack of oxygen.

One of the easiest ways to improve your medical vocabulary is simply to ask questions. If your doctor tosses out phrases that you don’t understand, ask what they mean. When the nurse uses a sphygmomanometer (blood pressure cuff) to take your blood pressure, ask her to explain the procedure to you using medical vocabulary. Patient records are full of medical jargon, so request your records and ask a staff member to explain unfamiliar words, or use a medical dictionary to look up their meanings.

Brushing up on your Latin and Greek is also a helpful way to improve your medical vocabulary, as many of the terms used today stem from those two languages. For example, bradycardia stems from the Greek words “bradys,” meaning slow and “kardia,” meaning heart. Together, they form the medical word for a slower-than-normal heart rate. When doctors write prescriptions, they use Latin terms to explain how often patients should take the medications. The initials “b.i.d” stems from the Latin phrase “bis in die,” or twice a day.

Colleges and vocational or technical schools often offer classes in medical terminology. While college classes may be limited to those majoring in a medical field, vocational or technical school classes are usually open to anyone interested in learning a new skill. Online classes are also available, but if you are planning to use your new-found knowledge to give you an edge in the workplace, it is usually best to go with an accredited facility.

Reading medical dictionaries, studying ancient languages, and taking classes are all good ways to start improving your medical vocabulary, but if you don’t actually use it on a regular basis, it will atrophy, or waste away from disuse. Take every opportunity possible to exercise your knowledge of medical jargon. Using medical vocabulary in your everyday life helps solidify its place in your memory for when you really need it.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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